Comparative Guts

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Andreas Vesalius (anatomist) and Jan van Calcar (artist), studio of Titian. The Seventh Plate of Muscles.

Illustration from the second edition of the anatomy text De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), 1555, p. 230. Medium: woodblock print made by unknown block cutter. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Dr. Alfred E. Cohn, in honor of William M. Ivins Jr., 1953, Accession Number: 53.682.

The illustration depicts a cadaver with its abdominal wall muscles removed and guts eviscerated, leaving the two long fusiform muscles of psoas major exposed. Located either side of the spine, the muscles descend from the level of the twelfth thoracic vertebra, continuing down through the pelvis, to insert into the femurs. The bilateral muscles of psoas major connect the upper body to the lower body and influence both the dynamics of the pelvic region and also the body’s respiratory function through shared ligamental attachments to the diaphragm. The domed muscle of respiration, which separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity, has been removed from the cadaver and appears suspended in the illustration—top right.
Significantly, the cavities and recesses of the body can be thought of as being as integral to the study of anatomy as the organs. As observed by literary theorist Jonathan Sawday in his writings on the Renaissance culture of dissection, ‘the study of anatomy was the study of the organization of space.’ (1) In regard to imaging, the technique of linear perspective not only embodies this concept it also provides a method to visually disseminate this view. The quality that proved so vital to the illustration of anatomy was not the optical technology’s ability to show objects three-dimensionally, but rather its capacity to depict objects as existing together in continuous relative space. De humani corporis fabrica, originally published in 1543, is often referred to as the first modern book of anatomy and the first anatomical atlas to use perspectival illustrations.

1. Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995), 86.